HARARE, Zimbabwe A shipment of weapons to Zimbabwe may be returned to China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Tuesday, after the troubled southern African nation's neighbors prevented the cargo from being unloaded.
The Chinese freighter arrived in South Africa last week, and human rights groups and others said they feared the mortar grenades and bullets onboard could be used by President Robert Mugabe's regime to clamp down on its opposition.
A South African group persuaded a judge to bar the weapons from transiting through the country to landlocked Zimbabwe. The An Yue Jiang then sailed away from South Africa, and private groups and government officials in Mozambique, Angola and Namibia also objected to the weapons, though Namibia said the ship could refuel there if necessary.
"As far as I know, the carrier is now considering carrying back the cargo," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
Although Jiang offered no details, the move appeared to indicate a backdown in the face of refusals by Zimbabwe's neighbors to allow the weapons to be offloaded and shipped through their territories.
There is no international arms embargo against Zimbabwe, and China is one of Zimbabwe's main trade partners and allies. But China's relationship with Mugabe is often pointed to as an example of its willingness to deal with authoritarian regimes in order to secure commodities and markets in Africa.
Although China's global weapons exports are considered tiny in dollar terms, especially compared to the United States, Beijing is a principle exporter of cheap, simple small arms blamed for fueling violence in Sudan and other parts of Africa.
Zimbabwe's government has refused to publish the results of the presidential election held more than three weeks ago, and the opposition says that is part of a ploy to steal the vote. There are reports of increasing violence against the opposition.
Mugabe's Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said his country had the right to acquire arms from legitimate sources.
"We are not a rebel country," he told The Associated Press.
Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, said he was awaiting more details on the report the ship may be returning to China without offloading the weapons.
"It would be pleasing to the people of Zimbabwe to note that there has been solidarity on the continent to stop the arming of the (Mugabe) regime at the expense of the people," Chamisa said.
"Instead of importing guns, we should be importing syringes, (AIDS medicine), books for kids. We should be importing food for the people," Chamisa said. "We are not at war. If anything we have to have a war against hunger, poverty, a lack of democracy, dictatorship."
In the United States, administration officials said Monday that U.S. intelligence agencies were tracking the Chinese vessel and American diplomats have been instructed to press authorities in South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and Angola not to allow it to dock.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss delicate diplomatic talks. They also said the State Department's top Africa envoy, Jendayi Frazer, planned to visit the region this week to underscore U.S. concerns.
The U.S. has grown increasingly impatient with Mugabe whose recent rule Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week called "an abomination" and with Zimbabwe's neighbors for not taking a harder line against the octogenarian leader.
Also Tuesday, Zimbabwean church leaders issued a joint statement calling for international intervention to help end the country's election crisis, saying people were being tortured, abducted and some murdered in a campaign against opposition supporters.
The leaders of all church denominations in Zimbabwe also called for the immediate announcement of results from the March 29 presidential election.
Chamisa, the opposition spokesman, said he had visited a hospital in southeastern Zimbabwe Monday and seen a pregnant woman who had been stabbed. He said he also saw an 85-year-old women whose legs had been broken. He attributed both cases to postelection violence.
Mugabe's officials, though, said such reports could not be confirmed, and said that if there had been postelection violence, the opposition might have been to blame.
"They are saying that we are sponsoring acts of politically motivated violence and anyone will be forgiven for thinking that they are the ones who are fomenting genocide in Zimbabwe," the state-owned Herald newspaper quoted the justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, as telling reporters Monday.
For the first time in Mugabe's 28-year rule, the opposition defeated his ruling ZANU-PF party in the first count of last month's parliamentary vote.
But electoral officials began recounting ballots Saturday for 23 legislative seats, most won by opposition candidates, and the ZANU-PF party needs just nine seats to reclaim a majority. The state-run Herald newspaper reported Monday that officials need longer than the three days originally planned and could take all week.